Special Forces' mission: Build ties between Afghans
ZHARAY DISTRICT, Afghanistan -
As a small white bus bounces through the swirling dust of a hot Tuesday morning, a man known as the Chief points to a series of buildings in the distance.
“That's Tarnak Farms,” says the Chief, who has spent 11 years with Army special forces. “That's where Osama Bin Laden set up his training camp. When we took it over, it was a very important statement.”
The Chief, a man with thick black hair and a trim beard, is on his way out from Kandahar Air Field in southwest Afghanistan to help deliver what he considers another important statement.
He is about to take a helicopter to a forward operating base in Zharay district, where members of his Special Forces team help train Afghan villagers to stay secure and defend themselves against Taliban forces fighting for control against the American-backed government.
As a member of the Florida-based 7th Special Forces Group, the Chief's identity and the identity of other commandos in the field are kept secret by the military.
While many of the estimated 20,000 U.S. and international military personnel and contractors at Kandahar are getting ready to close the books on Afghanistan, the Chief and the other members of his team are just getting started.
They arrived in Kandahar province last month.
Most forces are in what the military calls Retrograde. President Barack Obama has said that by 2014, he wants U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan
Even special operations forces are pulling back, but the Chief and his team have an enduring mission – creating a network among Afghan villages that can stand up to the Taliban.
“This is their country,” says the Chief.
He is heading back to a forward operating base in Kandahar's Zharay district, where two 7th Group teams are stationed. Their mission has lasting implications for America's future military role in Afghanistan and beyond.
They come and go from Kandahar Air Field – where the flight line, says another member of 7th Group, is one of the busiest in Afghanistan.
This group member is a native of St. Petersburg who graduated from Boca Ciega High School and he's staying behind at Kandahar Air Field to make sure the teams at the Zharay base have what they need.
Every few minutes, helicopters run by contractors take off and land, ferrying troops and civilians working for the military to bases all over the country.
The heat of the morning becomes evident as the Chief and others board their chopper. Searing waves of blade-driven air wash those who step aboard.
After a brief stop to refuel, the helicopter takes off for the short trip to the base.
It flies a few thousand feet over mostly tan swatches of dirt dotted with village compounds made of mud and, now and then, a patch of green where grapes and cherries grow. An occasional mass of rock, resembling a giant prone dragon, juts from the flat earth.
About 20 minutes after taking off, the chopper lands in a cloud of dust at the forward operating base.
Surrounded by 12-foot-high cement walls, the base is a fortress. Inside, behind another wall, 7th Special Forces Group teams have their own compound.
The ground is covered in big chunks of gravel, like most bases in Afghanistan. Several Humvees are parked along a wall and there are buildings, some behind cement blast walls, to house troops, guests and the command center.
There is also a weight room, a small game room, two shower stalls and several portable toilets.
The compound is run by the Captain. Like the Chief, he is a long-time Special Forces veteran and wears a closely-cropped beard. Unlike most members of the military, commandoes working with the Afghans get to wear facial hair.
There are two 12-person teams at the compound. They work with the Afghan Local Police on Village Stability Operations – a program set up with help from Scott Mann of Tampa, a former commando who retired last year.
One team meets with the police and its leaders, helping guide them on how to run an organization, to set up security and to create a village governmental structure.
The other team trains the police.
Shortly after the Chief arrives back at the compound, the Captain announces a mission.
“We are going to go out to a couple of villages and check out their checkpoints,” he says.
Inside the command center, a small wooden structure with a few computers and video screens to monitor security cameras, the Captain goes over some final details.
They need trucks for transport, for firepower, for communications and to carry water, which is essential in a place where it hits 100 degrees by late May.
As the Captain talks, chatter comes over the radio.
Someone has been injured by an improvised explosive device.
“Shrapnel to the face,” says a voice on the other end, before rattling off vital signs.
A week to the day earlier, as more than 12 years of U.S. military presence winds down in Afghanistan, four soldiers were killed by an IED not far from the base.
Says the Captain, “This is still a dangerous place.”